A skein of Cotton Braid
Cotton Braid once knitted up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Rowan Cotton Braid

First Impressions
I hereby vote Rowan Cotton Braid the most interesting yarn of the summer 2004 season. At first glance it looks like nothing more than rickrack trim, but spend more time with it and you'll see that it really is a fluid, soft yarn.

The composition is risky and original. A large strand of loosely spun fiber makes a zigzag pattern back and forth, held precariously in place by five parallel chains of finer fiber. The yarn slides inside each stitch on the chain rather than being woven or spun into place, keeping the material loose and flexible, if not a bit more fragile. I'll explain more in the Knitting Up section.

Cotton Braid is currently available in eight shades that blend white and assorted summery colors. For this review I used Van Gogh, a delicious blend of orange and wheat.

Knitting Up
My first advice: Tie a knot at the end of your yarn before you begin working with it. Otherwise, pull at one of the fine binder threads and you'll watch row after row of chains unravel like dominoes.

As the chains come undone, the zigzagging core is extended to become a flat, straight, uninspiring mess. The only thing holding the core in its zigzag shape are those chains.

This also means you can pull the zigzag core completely loose from the yarn, creating a giant external loop and a flat mess of core and binder fibers.

So why bother knitting with such a precarious yarn, you ask? Because it produces an amazing fabric that has the visual appeal of large-loop terrycloth and the elasticity of knitted fabric.

Depending on your taste, it's either weird or fascinating—but definitely unusual.

After you've tied the knot at the end of your yarn, my next piece of advice is to cast on extra loose. The yarn has no elasticity, and the knitted fabric expands significantly as you knit—so a tight cast-on row can't be tugged into proper form later.

Next, keep your eyes on your work, because your needles won't always clear the entire strand of yarn. They may stab through the center of the braid by mistake, or they may pick up a corner of the zigzag core from the next stitch. If this happens and you don't catch it for a few rows, you'll have an enormous loop protruding from your fiber.

I figured out how to fix it, though: In the stitches surrounding the loop, pull the core out at regular intervals. The surface is so loopy and chaotic that soon all the slack will be taken up and nobody will be able to tell the difference—even if you haven't restored the zigzag to its true original pattern.

Blocking / Washing
My swatches became slightly firmer in the water, which is a common occurrence when washing cottons or linens. They quickly adopted the exact look and feel of a washcloth. There was no bleeding in the wash or rinse, even with warm water.

I blocked the swatches, pressing them in a towel to remove excess moisture. My previously fluffy, three-dimensional opalescent fabric had become flat and dull. The question was, would they perk back up when they dried?

Fortunately, the answer was yes. From a reasonable distance, I couldn't tell the difference between my unwashed and washed skein.

I went into this part of my tests assuming the worst, that the yarn would only last one summer season before looking like a well-worn bathrobe. This assumption was partly based on the yarn's previously mentioned delicate composition.

But it's also based on the fact that the yarn's core strand is loosely spun with a very short fiber staple length. The looser the spin and shorter the staple, the less there is holding all those fibers in place.

Gently pinch and pull at that portion of the yarn and you'll see for yourself—a small bit of fibers will come off in your fingers. The more this happens, the more blurred and worn the fabric appeared.

I've already mentioned that the yarn is inelastic. In the wearability department, this means that there is no fiber memory to help the yarn bounce back into place after it gets stretched with wear.

If you make a reasonably long sweater (i.e. not cropped) out of Cotton Braid, the weight of the fabric will produce what I call the bell syndrome: the weighty fabric will pull tightly at your shoulders, growing then wider and bulkier as it reaches your waist and sleeves. Only routine washing and reblocking will help remedy this situation.

Rowan Cotton Braid would be ideal for an airy summer top worn at your poolside cabana in St. Tropez. And that's exactly what Martin Storey had in mind when he produced the design collection for this yarn—airy, relaxed, and comfortable poolside attire. In most cases he uses nothing more than simple stockinette and garter stitch.

The yarn's relatively short lifespan gives it an added element of decadence, especially if you consider that each skein retails for $9.95. Many of Storey's lighter patterns only require six to eight skeins ($59-$79), but the Palm Beach pool robe weighs in at 25 skeins, or almost $250.

Stylish or not, that may be a bit too decadent for this knitter's budget.

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